It’s that time of year again – when young, aspiring drummers get their first taste of what it means to be a total percussionist. Along with the package comes a variety of strike-abl
e noise prizes wrapped up in a convenient tote which we call the “student percussion kit”. It’s often seen as the most practical way to introduce students to the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic aspects required of the percussionist. While the percussion kit has helped make great strides in molding want-to-be-drummers into equally contributing musicians, I believe it’s time to move on from this paradigm and embrace what is required for the realities of today’s band and orchestra percussionists. It’s time to retire the bell kit. Here’s why:
Small Hands, Small Targets
Just as kids begin coloring with oversized crayons before they move to the more finely-tipped standard crayons, so too should they start with larger targets with mallet keyboard instruments. While wind an string students learn control by using air, tongue and pressure, percussion students learn control by learning correct stroke techniques and the height of rise of their mallets. Why are we making it more difficult for them by demanding to find a target no bigger than a dime?
Ear Training in Fourth Grade? Of Course!
It’s just as important for percussion students to understand pitch relationships as it is for a violinist or trombonist. Needing to learn how to tune timpani alone is a good reason why percussion students should be required to match pitch, sing and identify key intervals. Student bells are in a register that is difficult to emulate and the pitch will often warble because the “instrument” (more on that later) is made with inferior materials.
It Really Isn’t Very Practical
The percussion kits are normally packaged to be dragged around in the same sort of way as a piece of luggage. Often times these cases are as tall as the students. Tuba students generally do not haul their instrument into school, and it is just as impractical to bring a micro percussion section on a bus.
It’s Barely a Real Instrument
A quick tip before buying or renting a bell kit – ask your band director if there have been any donated percussion kits. You’ll find these things in attics, basements, closets and yard sales everywhere. Why? Because after year one they are no longer fun or useful. While their wind and string counterparts are learning to make pleasant sounds on their shiny name-brand horns, the percussionist is still creating crass sounds on shaved pot-metal stuck to the end of a pole. It’s why your percussionists are eating their music in the back of the room.
As a percussionist, I recall only wanting to play the drums and instead was offered a bait-and-switch with something not much better than the toys I had as a toddler. I really learned to play mallet keyboard instruments late because it was a requirement to be considered as a candidate for a music degree track (which has gotten nearly infinitely more difficult and competitive since then). I since have developed a love for the marimba, but it was a shame that I was exposed to the possibilities of all percussion instruments so late.
What if we would respect young percussionists with the same quality student instruments that other students are provided?
What’s the solution?
There are many options that should be acceptable in terms of practicality and budget for both families and the school. The idea that what are intended to be large percussion instruments being portable for a fourth grader should be tossed out from the start. There are a good number of quality wood or synthetic xylophones or marimbas which can be kept at home, produce great sounds, and even used in concert settings, such as the Adams 3.5 Octave Academy Series Xylophone with Stand. For a cost less than a student alto saxophone, baritone or oboe, percussion students can purchase or rent not only these keyboard instruments but also a full drum set. For minimal investment, schools may purchase these same instruments to use year after year in their lesson groups – just as they do for tubas, baritones and tenor saxophones.
Let’s start our percussionists off on the right foot (or left foot…I think there’s a pun there). Let’s provide the equipment they need for success while making the teaching of musical concepts much easier.
There has been great response to this article and some discussion around the price point around student marimbas and xylophones. I’ve listed the Adams model simply because I know the quality is great. In some ways this discussion could be turned on it’s head – I mean – nobody balks at a $1,700 for a student oboe, right? But that said, there are certainly other student xylophones and marimbas out there at a lower price point that are infinitely better than the bell kits – such as this 3 Octave Padauk Xylophone by Stagg. It’s certainly possible to go home with that instrument and a great student drum set for well under $1,000. So your student will have great tools and be the coolest kid on the block.